Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Commentary: ORDA Needs A Climate Plan

Ice Fishing Season has begun around the North Country, meaning you can now legally catch fish with a tip-up from the ice. The problem? No ice.

Thin ice is just one of the climate related impacts we have come to expect in this era of declining Adirondack winters. According to a 2000 article in Science, over the past 150 years in the Northern Hemisphere lake “freeze dates averaged 5.8 days per 100 years later, and changes in break-up dates averaged 6.5 days per 100 years earlier.” Those numbers are born out in the Adirondacks where the warmest years on record have nearly all occurred since 1990. A 2009 study of Mirror Lake showed ice now forms “14-15 days later and melts 3-4 days earlier than it did in the early 1900s, thereby reducing seasonal ice cover duration by slightly more than two weeks.”

What does that mean for us? If you are among the estimated 20% or so of Adirondack residents employed in climate sensitive business, it means a lot. According to Jerry Jenkins, author of Climate Change in the Adirondacks, “No town can really prosper without a year-round economy, and no Adirondack town can have a year-round economy without winter recreation.” Jenkins provides an overview of our winter economy:

Area skiing takes place on over 300 miles of groomed trails at 29 different ski areas. Backwoods skiing uses several hundred miles more. Snowmobiling uses 800 miles of groomed trails on state land and several hundred miles of trails on private land. Ice climbing takes places on over 100 routes on 13 major cliffs. Ice fishing… is done locally on most lakes. To support this activity requires several hundred businesses to run facilities and feed, house, and equip participants.

Jenkins looked in detail at the Old Forge area and found that the Town of Webb issues about 10,000 snowmobile trail passes a year alone and benefited from an additional three local ski areas. He found that 78 of the 94 restaurants and inns were open in winter, six businesses sell, repair, or rent snowmobiles, 20 more sell equipment and other merchandise. Jenkins believes that 500 to 1,000 people are employed by the winter economy in the Old Forge area alone.

One thing seems clear now about climate change. Leaders in the climate sensitive sectors of our local economies should already understand the temperature change our region faces and be planning ways to lessen the impacts of local warming.

During the recent Wintergreen event it became clear to me that the Olympic Regional Development Authority (ORDA) fails to appreciate the impact of warming on our winter sports economy.

What convinced me that ORDA was behind the ball? Considering the state’s budget woes that seem to threaten ORDA’s very existence, I would have thought the agency’s president and CEO Ted Blazer would have come to the Wintergreen conference armed for bear. I would have thought he’d be rolling out numbers showing the economic importance of local winter sports and ORDA’s important role in perpetuating them. Instead participants at Wintergreen were offered a litany of energy saving projects, mostly at Whiteface, that left a number of participants I spoke with concluding that Blazer just didn’t get it – that ORDA had no plan.

During a break I found Blazer at the back of the room with Whiteface General Manager Bruce McCulley, the brother of vocal motorized access advocate James McCulley, who was sitting in for a representative of the Ski Educational Foundation. I asked Blazer if ORDA had a plan. “We’re using common sense and internal initiatives,” he said. The plan? No plan.

Mount Van Hovenberg and Gore Mountain, ORDA’s oft-forgotten stepchildren, were not even represented at the meeting, the first to offer hard numbers on what climate change will mean to our winter economy. Repeated requests to ORDA’s press office inquiring whether the agency’s facilities even tracked snow cover, temperature and other climate change phenomenon went unanswered.

ORDA has a uniquely important leadership role in addressing the challenges we face from global warming. ORDA’s national and international role in winter sports and winter sports culture represents a significant investment, not just by locals, athletes, and their organizations, but by all taxpayers. Forget for a minute ORDA’s $20 million Olympic Conference Center project, think of ORDA’s “continued decline in revenues” according to WNBZ Jon Alexander, that “shows no prospects of the authority getting out of the red anytime soon.”

ORDA’s operating budget for fiscal year 2010-2011 is $32.4 million, which anticipates a $600,000 decline in facilities revenues. According to Alexander, “the operating losses balloon to $13.4 million once $7.5 million in depreciation is included.” About half of that shortfall is expected to be recouped with $7.14 million in state taxpayer-funding.

ORDA seems to understand that their revenues are in steady decline, but it’s not clear whether ORDA leadership knows whether or not the shortened natural snow season, and the additional costs of snow-making and grooming, has anything to do with that decline. “The 2010-2011 budget anticipates a continued revenue decline at Whiteface, with the facility making $1 million less than this year, but also projects a $200,000 increase at Gore,” Alexander reported. Those numbers include increases in ticket prices and advertising revenues.

Attendees at the Wintergreen conference learned some startling numbers about the impact of our winter sports economy, among them that fact ORDA has about 1,200 local employees. According to five year old report [pdf] ORDA contributes about $300 million to the local economy. In 2006, Lake Placid’s sports and tourism venues received more than $40 million in state subsidies according to a report by NCPR’s Brian Mann (about $15 thousand for resident of the Village of Lake Placid). Those are significant investments in our winter economy, investments we need to safeguard.

I can’t forget what Blazer told me when I asked him about a plan to deal with warmer winters impact on ORDA’s bottom line: “We’re using common sense and internal initiatives.”

Common sense tells me that with so much at stake, ORDA needs a thoughtful plan to address the impacts of climate change on its – and one of our region’s – core businesses.

Photo by John Warren: Whiteface Mountain on November 12th.

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John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.




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